I toe the line between compassion and anger.
Or maybe it’s sadness or amusement. Probably all of the above. One of my professors, he’s smart and I like him, has called me by the other black girls’ name. She’s a close friend of mine, but she is not me. I know he doesn’t notice because when I nervously approach him after class and explain to him what happened, he looks distressed. I briefly wonder if I shouldn’t have said anything, if I’m being too sensitive or overreacting or putting a “racial lens” on something when it doesn’t need to have one.
Sometimes all you want to be is just another student, but if you don’t speak, your voice won’t be heard. And your voice is representative.
Under different circumstances, I may have just brushed it off. People mix up names all the time. But I feel the need to say something because we have just had a deep Haas-wide discussion on this very topic. It happened with another student whom I care deeply about, and he was brave enough to speak up. It’s not the action as much as it is the feeling of discomfort that has to be addressed lest it become resentment or hate or worse. My professor is apologetic and upset, embarrassed and empathetic. He is considerate of what I’m feeling but doesn’t say, I understand. I know. I appreciate that he doesn’t put words in my mouth. Later that night, he writes me an email. It is kind, thoughtful.
Most of the people that I know at Haas are just that—kind and thoughtful. Being black at Berkeley Haas meant that I was surrounded by many students and faculty who were aware or wanted to become more aware. They took classes and even created classes; classes like Dialogues on Race. They were and are true allies, and I hoped to earn my title as ally from them and have their backs. What a beautiful community I found, starting with the Consortium and my incredible co-liaisons. I also built strong friendships and relationships from being a leadership communications graduate student instructor, a rep for my cohort, and participating in the International Business Development program with a fantastic team. But sometimes, even that didn’t feel like enough.
One day in class, we watch a video about the civil rights movement. There is, of course, violence: hoses, beatings, lynching, death. Lives are changed and lineages destroyed. I soon realize that I’m the only one crying. The only one. Perhaps coincidentally I’m also the only black person in the class. Others are considerate and caring. My friends hug me and classmates and my professor check in on me after class. It could just be that they don’t cry easily, but it seemed like my classmates were observing something far away and long ago, that they weren’t connected to. Which made me feel like maybe they weren’t connected to me.
Haas is diverse. We have 40% international students and many members of the LGBTQ+ community, veterans, women, men. We have diversity of thought and of experience. We openly celebrate this and our cultural backgrounds and gender fluidity. And yet there were only three black women in my class. Two in the class of 2020. I’ve heard people argue that, “Black people don’t understand the value of a graduate degree” or “It’s the pipeline problem.” Pipeline problems exist, but did we check to see where our pipes were connected to? If the line is faulty perhaps it’s connected to the wrong source. Where was our strong representation in Atlanta? In D.C.? In our own staff? How can we expect to attract this demographic without being intentional?
This feeling isn’t new or limited to Berkeley, however. I felt the same in my undergraduate institution where I was one of the few black engineers in diverse Atlanta. Or in my first job after college, where for three years I was the only black person on a team of 70. It’s just getting old at this point.
I was asked what it’s like to be black at Berkeley Haas. What is it like to be black anywhere in America? To be reminded that despite being integral to this country, you don’t exactly belong. To be the first in your household, your generation, maybe even your extended family to attend a place like this and be heaped with praise by how much you’re able to “overcome” and how you must be special and smart. All the while, you know at least 10 other people just as smart as you and even more hardworking who just couldn’t afford your undergraduate institution or the test prep or to take time off of work to come to a place like Berkeley. You don’t feel special—you feel lucky, considering that if your mom had not moved to a city with better schools, perhaps you would be another person with “lost potential.”
Being black means being surrounded by people who don’t think about race every day and marveling at that. Marveling that they don’t talk about the injustices of a society that has already nearly forgotten its past and keeps repeating it with a fresh set of faces. It’s sitting on a panel, leading a small group discussion, or even writing an article— about being black at Berkeley Haas. Sometimes all you want to be is just another student, but if you don’t speak, your voice won’t be heard. And your voice is representative. You have to keep reminding people that you do not carry the perspective of everyone who happens to have your same skin color. You are an individual; sometimes you want to be treated that way.
Then, when you write the article, you decide to tone it down so that readers will take you seriously and not dismiss you as an angry black woman when you decided to try vulnerability. And still you fear the reaction.